Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, during my walk along the Mutton Brook last week I encountered this extraordinary plant growing in Hampstead Garden Suburb. I had never seen anything quite like it before. The leaves resembled a conifer, the flowers looked rather leguminous, and the pink colour of the blooms was a pleasant shock to the retina on a frosty morning. In other words, what on earth was it? Fortunately two of my readers, Mr Baldwin Hamey (or rather, his botanically-minded friend) and Ms Anne Guy were able to identify it as a Grevillea, and once I found out what it was, I had to do some further investigation. It turns out that this plant is a long, long way from home, and that it has some very interesting attributes.
The Grevillea genus contains about 360 species, all of them from the Antipodes (mostly Australia, but a few in New Caledonia, Sulawesi and New Guinea). All of them are endemics, meaning that they grow wild nowhere else in the world. The shapes of the flowers are extraordinary: an alternative name for this species is ‘cats claw’, but there are also many ‘spider flowers’. Grevillea alpina comes from Victoria and parts of New South Wales. The flowers come in many colours and five different shapes, but the ‘Olympic Flame’ variant has this delightful combination of lollypop pink and snowy white. In their native land, the plants are mainly pollinated by birds, honeycreepers to be specific.
Plants which are bird-pollinated tend to have bright red or pink flowers, and no perfume – most birds (with the exception of kiwis and some vultures) have a poorly-developed sense of smell, so there is no point in the plant using scent to attract them. In the UK, bees may also feed from the flowers, but are able to do so without pollinating the plant, which has not evolved to work with such small creatures – a case of ‘something for nothing’ for the insects. The flowers are also eaten by parrots, who don’t do much for pollination either but are completely charming.
Grevilleas are very nectar-rich, something which the aboriginal people of Australia have long recognised – the nectar can be shaken onto the hand for a quick burst of sweetness and energy, or added to a wooden vessel called a coolamon with some water to make a refreshing drink when on the move. The coolamon is made by moulding the bark of a hardwood tree over a fire to shape it as required. In the picture below, the vessel is lined with paperbark to provide a comfortable bed for a new baby, but for fluids the two halves of the coolamon would have been secured together. I am always in awe of the ability of indigeonous peoples everywhere to make the most of the plants that they find in their environment, and their understanding of the ebb and flow of the natural world that surrounds them.
Should you be tempted to try the nectar of a Grevillea, however, I would advise you to desist, as some of the commonly cultivated Grevilleas contain cyanide.
Grevilleas are named after Charles Francis Greville (1749 – 1849), who developed the harbour at Milford Haven in south Wales, but, more relevantly for this discussion, was the first person to persuade the Vanilla Orchid to flower in the UK. He was good friends with Sir Joseph Banks, who was involved with the Botany Bay colony during its inception, and who has a genus of plants of proteas, the Banksii, named after him too. The ships that brought the convicts to Botany Bay would return home laden down with the best of the flora and fauna that Australia had to offer. The first of the Grevillea plants arrived in 1825, and were hugely popular. However, the conditions for growing these plants are completely different from those present in their original home, and so only a few species can tolerate living outdoors, and even then they are notorious for succumbing to overly wet conditions.
So, dear Readers, I hope you will forgive me for including such an exotic plant in the Wednesday Weed. I have seldom been so astonished by a winter-flowering plant – it was a little like spotting an escaped wallaby, or espying a koala in the weeping willow. I must make a trip to Australia one day: the flora and fauna are unique, and illustrate so well how evolution can come up with extraordinary forms. In the meantime, I will be keeping an eye on this grevillea, and will no doubt now notice hundreds more, as is the way of things.
Photo One (Honeyeater) – T. Gerus (https://www.flickr.com/photos/tgerus/15564100412)
Photo Two (Lorikeet) – https://www.flickr.com/photos/zoom_eric/171175004
Photo Three (Coolamon) – By Taken byfir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.auCanon 20D + Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 – Own work, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=445560
Photo Four (Charles Francis Greville) – By George Romney – http://thepeerage.com/p41634.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17078291
All other blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!